How to Stop Avoiding Difficult Conversations

While the old adage suggests that silence is golden, on teams it’s deadly.  That’s because in the absence of information and open communication, people make up stories about what is happening, whether positive or negative.  And once people start to make up a particular story about something, that story holds more power over their behavior than anything else happening on the team.

There are many reasons why people might avoid conversations, but in our experience the main reason is because they don’t know how, and they’re afraid that the conversation might escalate into conflict. We’ve worked with many tools over the years and next to the intention/impact tool we wrote about in February, this tool based on Sherod Miller’s work, provides a step by step process to preparing for and having a difficult conversation.

The First Step

So, instead of avoiding that difficult conversation or launching into it ill prepared, take a few moments to write down the answers to the following 5 questions:

  1. What have I seen or heard? Make sure you jot down the facts of the situation, those very objective details that are not debatable. If you find yourself having a hard time coming up with ‘just the facts’ then you know you have already made up a pretty compelling story about the situation and need to slow down, and identify just the facts.
  2. What do I think is going on? — This is the “story” part of the situation, the assumptions and beliefs you have about it, the meaning you have attributed to a particular situation. In our experience people are pretty good at identifying their story, but not so good at being open to the other person’s story.
  3. How am I feeling? Some people are really good at this step (and in fact can get stuck here or overwhelm others!) while others are uncomfortable identifying and/or expressing their emotions. The six basic emotions are anger, fear, sadness, surprise, happiness and disgust. Other emotions common to difficult situations are disappointment, frustration, betrayal, or anxiety. It is important to identify and name your emotion in order to deal with it in a helpful way.  In our experience, people who skip this step tend to “act out” their emotions and this then creates more confusion and unintended impact for others.
  4. What do I want? This is a simple question but it often stumps people. They are usually so preoccupied with their story and/or emotions that they get stuck there.  In our experience, often the main “want” is to feel heard.
  5. Am I open to another perspective? This is probably the hardest step of all.  If you really want open communication and a productive team, you need to be prepared to be wrong.  We often ask people “if the other person was 10% right what would that be?” If you can be open to even a 10% shift in your thinking, there’s a stronger possibility that your difficult conversation will turn out ok.

Hopefully writing down the answers to these questions has allowed you to develop some perspective about the situation and deal with your own emotions in a positive way.

The Second Step

Now, you are ready to have the conversation using the first 4 questions above to structure it. If you are completely new to having this sort of conversation, we would suggest you choose a very low risk situation to practice and let the person know you are trying out a new tool.  Here’s how to structure the conversation:

I ‘m trying a new approach to our teamwork (communication) and would like to chat about what happened at our last team meeting.  Would you have a few moments to do that? Assuming a yes, then identify your responses from question #1 above and ask the other person for theirs. Once you have agreed on the facts, you can proceed to your story (#2 above) and ask for theirs.  Move through all  4 questions above, asking the person for their perspective at each point.

In our experience most people who have a solid relationship going into the conversation are able to come to a better understanding and strengthened relationship with each other.  If the situation has been going on for some time, trust has been eroded and either party is not open to the 10% shift, you may need to call in a third party to help out with the conversation.

What tips do you have for difficult conversations?  We’d love to hear from you!

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